A list order change under Australian Senate rules

The voters in Tasmania have pushed a Labor Senator up the ranks and she will be reelected ahead of other candidates of the party.

Under the old system, most voters cast ticket votes, making the order of election in any given party more closed list than open or STV. Now, voters can rank “below the line” without having to rank all candidates. (Alternatively, they can rank parties “above the line”.)

The article notes that Tasmanian voters have tended to vote below the line more than voters in other states, anyway (probably because they use STV for their state assembly).

There are also some strange ballot rankings above the line. ABC says, quoting Polling analyst Kevin Bonham:

I’ve seen cases like people voting One for the Shooter, Fishers and Farmers, and Two for the Animal Justice Party, two parties that are more or less totally opposed to each other in the views. I saw people voting for the Sex Party, then Family First – one exists to basically negate the other. People are viewing parties in quite a strange way.

Thailand’s new constitution and electoral system

Thailand will be holding a referendum on adopting a new constitution on August 7. A translation of this document is available here. The nation is currently ruled by a military junta, which took power from the elected government in May 2014. If the constitution is adopted, elections will be held in mid-2017 to choose a new civilian government (though that date has been pushed back a fair few times).

The document provides for a bicameral Thai parliament, as has been the norm for the nation’s numerous democratic constitutions. There is a Senate and a House of Representatives. One of the most substantial changes is that the Senate, which was half-elected and half-appointed by the King (I am unclear whether this was to take place on the advice of the government) under the 2007 constitution, and entirely elected under the 1997 one, will now be wholly appointed. This represents a return to pre-1997 practice.

While the Senate only has a delaying role on most legislation, passage at a joint sitting is required for certain ‘organic’ laws, like those on elections, the operation of the Constitutional Court, and the specific method for choosing Senators. This will become especially important in the first term of government, as the first Senate is to be appointed on the advice of the members of the junta.

The House of Representatives is the larger and more powerful of the two houses. As was hinted at by the drafters of the new document, it is to be elected using mixed-member proportional representation, though with closed lists and a remarkably small list tier (150 list/350 constituency).

When this proposal was first put about, I did some simulations of what the House would have looked like following the 2011 election had MMP been used. These estimates are based off a smaller list tier (the size of the one used under MMM in 2011). Any increase in the size of the House is due to overhang.

"Projections
The key loser would be the populist Pheu Thai party, strongly opposed by the coup leaders and the winner would be the Democrat Party, which is considered to have the tacit support of the coup leaders. This would not necessarily be an unfair advantage (given it would give the Democrats a somewhat closer share of seats to their nationwide support), but it would be an advantage nonetheless.

MMP is specifically entrenched in the document. Amendment procedures have also changed; while past documents have allowed a majority of members of the House to make amendments, the new document will require 20% support from opposition parties to make amendments. Needing a super-majority isn’t unusual internationally, but not many constitutions contain quite so many specific electoral provisions as Thailand’s.

What impact increased proportionality will have on Thailand’s democracy is not entirely clear. On one hand, it could require governments to form broader coalitions, which might reduce confrontation in Thai politics and thus less resort to extra-constitutional means. On the other, it could lead to a fragmented House and weak, revolving-door civilian governments, like those that existed before 1997.

It is also worth noting that the elections scheduled for mid-2017, if they take place then, will be held under a law written and approved by the current military-appointed legislature.

Regardless of this constitution, Thailand has clearly got serious problems with military intervention. Previous Constitutions of a similar nature to this one ended in failure. It is unclear whether this one will be any better, though I see it as unlikely.

Does AV mean higher or lower effective number of parties?

There may be a conventional wisdom among people who study comparative electoral systems that the Alternative Vote (also known as Instant Runoff or Majority Preferential) tends to suppress the effective number of parties, compared to plurality (First Past the Post, or FPTP). Or maybe it is just me, but I will admit to having such a notion. After all, Australia is a pretty strict two-party system, isn’t it?

The correct way to approach the question of whether AV means a higher or lower effective number of parties (N) than FPTP is to ask: What we should expect N to be, given the country’s seat product?

As explained by Taagepera (2007) and further elaborated and tested by Li and Shugart (2016), the seat product is a country’s mean district magnitude (M), times its assembly size (S). The Seat Product Model says that the effective number of seat-winning parties (Ns) tends to be the sixth root of this product: Ns=(MS)1/6.

The model is logical, not a mere product of empirical regression work, although regression tests confirm it almost precisely (Li and Shugart, 2016).

When all districts elect just one member, thus M=1, the Seat Product is just the assembly size, S. Hence we take the sixth root of S to get an expectation for Ns. What if we do this for Australia’s House of Representatives? We get an expectation of 2.31.

The actual Ns for Australia’s elections since 1984, the year S was increased from 125 to 148 (subsequently it has increased to 150, a minor change) is… 2.53. However, I believe that figure (I am using Gallagher’s Election Indices) treats the Coalition parties as one in elections before 2010.

In the two most recent elections, Ns has been 2.92 and 3.23. The notes to Gallagher’s Election Indices indicate that for these elections the Liberal Party, the Nationals, and the Liberal National Party of Queensland are treated as separate parties. In my opinion they should be so treated, although I suppose one could have a debate about that.

The actual mean is thus above the expectation for a hypothetical FPTP of the same size assembly. If we use the figure of 2.53, it is obviously not much higher than 2.31 (the ratio is 1.10). However, if we consider the value, at least in recent elections, to be around 3.0, it is about 1.30 times the expectation value.

Contrast this with the UK, where elections of the same period (1987-2010) have a mean Ns=2.30. This is just what we expect for FPTP, right? Not much over 2.0. Not so fast! The UK has a huge assembly, and with S=650 (aprpox., as it varies over the period), we should expect Ns=2.94. The UK actually has one of the more under-fragmented assemblies, according to the Seat Product Model, with this recent-period average being only 78% of expectation.

So how about Canada, where AV is one of the potential reforms being considered? Over a similar period (1984-2011) we get Ns=2.63. With S around 300 during this time, we should get Ns=2.59. So Canada pretty much nails the expectation of the model.

So, should we expect Ns to go down if Canada were to adopt AV, as (what I characterized as) the conventional wisdom would have it? Or should we expect it to go up?

I would not be inclined to say ‘down’. I will just leave it at that for now.

New posts on Australia (and environs)

Four new posts are up today, each of them by either Alan or Henry. They are part of a series that begins now on the upcoming election in Australia (plus an update on Bougainville).

So scroll down, and enjoy. Thank you, Alan and Henry, for being F&V’s correspondents Down Under!

Has South Australia’s two-party system been Nicked?

As most of my readers will know, Australia’s federal election campaign has begun, with polling day scheduled for July 2. The campaign has been rather uneventful so far, but there is one interesting event that could take place in South Australia.

Nick Xenophon is a Senator from South Australia. His political career started when he was elected to the South Australian Legislative Council (which is elected eleven members every three years, using the single transferable vote) as a candidate opposed to ‘pokies’ (slot machines). He received 2.86% of the vote, which represented only about a third of a quota; nonetheless, he received group ticket preferences from seven other parties, and was elected.

During his six-year term, he developed substantial popularity in the state, and when his seat came up for election in 2006, his ‘Independent Nick Xenophon’ ticket received 20.6% of the vote for the lower house, only six points behind the Liberal Party. This allowed him to be elected, as well as his running mate Ann Bressington.

Following this result, he decided to run for the Australian Senate in 2007, as an independent candidate. He won a seat with 14.8% of the primary vote: just above a quota.

The results of that election saw the Labor Party win a majority in the House of Representatives, and form government. However, the party was relatively weak in the Senate; they had only 32 seats, to 37 for the Liberal/National coalition. With 39 votes needed to pass legislation, this meant that Xenophon shared the balance of power with five Green Senators and one member of the religious conservative Family First Party.

This meant that Senator Xenophon was in a position to heavily influence government legislation. And, as a Senator without a particularly strong ideological affiliation, he used this power to direct Federal funding to South Australian projects; for example, when the government needed to pass an economic stimulus bill, Senator Xenophon blocked it at first, in order to increase funding for conservation of the Murray-Darling River.

Following the 2010 election, the Labor Party lost its majority in the House of Representatives, but was able to come to agreements with a number of independent members of the House to hold onto a majority. However, in the Senate, Labor and the Greens together had a majority, allowing the government to avoid negotiation with the other Senators.

Despite this reduction in his influence, Xenophon was easily re-elected in 2013, securing 24.9% of the vote, narrowly beating the Labor Party. Such a vote put him well on the way to a second seat; however, most parties (including Labor and the Greens) submitted group tickets against his running mate, allowing Family First’s Bob Day to be elected off 3.76% of the primary vote.

Much has changed in the Senate since then. The 2013 election brought the Liberal/National coalition to power, but the government only won 33 seats in the Senate, meaning that they needed six other Senators to pass a bill. Assuming Labor and Green opposition to a bill, this meant that Xenophon and two other Senators could block a bill.

During this parliamentary term, Xenophon announced he would form a national political party. While he had registered a party before his 2013 election called the ‘Nick Xenophon Group’ (in order to have his name appear above the line on the ballot paper) it only contested the Senate in South Australia. In 2014, the party was turned into the Nick Xenophon Group, which would contest elections outside South Australia and without Xenophon as a candidate.

The government also made substantial changes to the electoral law towards the end of this parliamentary term. The electoral system for the Senate was changed from the single transferable vote with compulsory preferences, where voters could either number every single candidate, or vote for a party’s ticket of preferences. Large numbers of candidates mean that most voters voted for a party’s ticket of preferences. This system meant that small parties were able to swap preferences to other small parties with very strong preference flows, allowing candidates to win with very small shares of the vote. Dr Kevin Bonham sums up the issues with the system very well here.

The system was replaced early this year, following an agreement between the Liberal/National government, the Greens and Xenophon. It was replaced by an optional preferential system, where voters can either vote preferentially above the line (with a preference for a party representing a vote for the candidates of that party in order) or for individual candidates below the line.

Shortly following this change, the government announced that they would recall Parliament in order to put several industrial relations bills to a vote. This was the second time these bills had been put to the Senate (they had been rejected the first time), and if they were rejected again, the government would have a trigger for a double dissolution (an election for all members of both houses of Parliament). As it turned out, the bill was blocked, and a double dissolution was called.

The Xenophon Team has been announcing candidates for selected House of Representatives seats, and will run a Senate ticket in every state. The fact that this election is a double dissolution will have a number of advantages for this party.

First of all, the threshold for election in the rest of the country will be halved, as twelve seats will be up for election. This will make it easier for minor parties of all sorts to be elected, and Xenophon’s party is minor outside of South Australia.

Second of all, and more importantly, it will allow Xenophon himself to be attached to the party’s Senate ticket in South Australia for all twelve Senators, rather than just six. Why is this important?

Well, when Xenophon was re-elected to the South Australian Legislative Council in 2006, his ticket won two seats. While his original running mate turned out to be a disaster, the replacement for his seat (John Darley) ran for re-election in the 2014 election as the “Independent Nick Xenophon Team”. He received only 13% of the primary vote, but held his seat.

From that result, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that there is a dropoff in support for Xenophon-affiliated candidates when Xenophon himself is not on the ballot, and thus him being on the ballot for all Senators could boost the party’s representation somewhat. While this may be extrapolating too much, I also think that this dropoff makes it unlikely that the Xenophon Team, despite optimistic polls (I suspect voters may be confused between the Senate and the House, but to be honest this is mostly speculation).

The other interesting thing about the Xenophon Team is that it has the possibility to lead to some very interesting results. While his House candidates are likely to be irrelevant outside of South Australia, his Senate support in the state, as well as strong polling, suggests that his party could be competitive in House seats.

The most positive individual seat polling for the Xenophon Team took place before the Liberal Party replaced Tony Abbott as leader with Malcolm Turnbull. Seat polling commissioned by trade unions a year ago suggested that a Xenophon Team candidate could win Education Minister Christopher Pyne’s seat. However, more recent polling has been somewhat less optimistic.

What will be interesting is that we will get a better picture of how preferential voting works in a multi-party environment. The importance of finishing order will be substantial, and there could be opportunities for tactical voting.

In most of the seats the Xenophon Team is targeting, the Liberal Party will almost certainly finish first in the primary vote. It is who finishes second that will be important. If, after all the other candidates are excluded, Labor is second, then the Liberals will have a good chance of victory. While the Xenophon Team is still undecided about how it will distribute their preferences, one key candidate has said that they will not file a specific how-to-vote card, and it seems likely that voters for the Xenophon Team will be more centrist.

If the Xenophon Team is second, however, then all bets are off. Labor has not yet announced its preference decisions in South Australia; however, I think it likely that they would not be too unhappy to see the defeat of a prominent Liberal MP.

Tactically speaking, it would be sensible for Labor to run a minor campaign in those seats, to ensure that the Xenophon Team finishes second on primary votes. On the other hand, the Liberals might want to surreptitiously encourage people to vote Labor (although such a campaign has not, to the best of my knowledge, been tried in Australia before).

How preferential voting works in a three-way race will become more relevant if Canada adopts it, as part of the Liberal electoral reform process. The results in South Australia, and the campaigns in the districts, might give a clue as to whether it works effectively in a multi-party environment.